A new resistance force has been announced in Azerbaijan by Iran. It is called Huseynyun, a faction similar to what Iran has endorsed in the past, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Ansar Allah (Houthis), the Fatemiyoun and Zainebiyoun composed of Shia Afghans and Pakistani fighters. Collectively, these factions are called ‘axis of resistance’.
There is little known about the group. Although, many analysts believe that it was first formed during the 2019 Syrian conflict. These developments will bring internal political instability inside Azerbaijan. Although, being a Shiite majority, it is largely secular, and doesn’t subscribe to Iranian form of government, after years of Soviet rule. It is a close ally of Israel as well as Turkey.
In the past, too, Tehran tried to export its resistance inside Azerbaijan, but it didn’t find much success. It was in 1991 when Iran had tried to establish Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (AIP). The party was eventually banned, as it was accused of being covertly funded by Iran with the aim of overthrowing the Azerbaijani government and turning it into an Islamic republic. The party, nevertheless, remained functional for many years, and there was also an arrest of its pivotal leader known as Movsum Samadov in 2011. Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council has also been active in Azerbaijan since the early nineties, according to Israel’s Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre. This was to ensure that Azerbaijan withdraw its secular character, change its pro-Western orientation, and sever ties with Israel.
Some former AIP members also found their way into Azeri Hezbollah, which has existed in the country since 1993. These members once plotted an attack on US embassy in Baku.
Iran’s other overarching concern is Israel’s growing proximity to Iran’s borders via its military and political relations with Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan and Israel relations have a close set of variables. Baku has strongly benefited from Israel’s military technology, particularly drones, during the war with Armenia. Pro-Israel organisations also are a mainstay of Baku’s lobbying efforts in Washington, to neutralise the rival Armenian lobby and dodge human rights criticisms. In exchange, Azerbaijan is expected to continue providing a platform for Israel’s intelligence activities aimed at Iran.
Iran has also done several military drills on Azerbaijan–Armenia border, after first anniversary of Nagorno Karabkh war, but such displays are unsatisfactory to protect Iranian interests and its borders against hostile foreign elements, such as Israeli expansionism. That’s why they have started funding groups like Huseynyun.
According to Iranian hardliners, the Zangezur corridor, proposed by Azerbaijan to connect the rest of the country with its Nakhchivan enclave via Armenia’s southern Syunik region is a gateway for Israel and NATO’s direct entry into the Caucasus and, therefore, would violate Armenia’s territorial integrity and also threaten Iran.
Tensions had also increased between Iran and Turkey in September 2011 when Erdogan recited a poem during his visit to Azerbaijan, which was met with Iranian displeasure. Tehran accused Erdogan of encouraging separatism and ethnic tensions in Iran as million of ethnic Azerbaijanis live in northern Iran. President Erdogan’s support for pan-Turkism, an ideology espousing the political and cultural integration of Central Asia’s Turkic peoples (which include Azerbaijanis and Iranian Azeris), continues to damage relations between Ankara and Tehran. The naval drills conducted by Azerbaijan and Turkey in the Caspian Sea were also perceived by Iran as a threat.
When it comes to Iran’s Azeri community, it enjoys numerous historical, linguistic, and cultural ties with Azerbaijan, and it could fall prey to unprecedented state repression. In the past, there were movements calling for an autonomous Azerbaijani province in Iran, like the Khiyabani insurgency of 1920 or the Soviet-backed Azerbaijan People’s Government of 1945-1946, were short-lived and failed to gain popular support, according to political scientist Ramin Ahmadoghlu. Professor Neda Bolourchi argues that the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war did not inspire Iranian Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Zoroastrians, Jews, or Christians to rebel against the infant Islamic Republic. Yet, Tehran’s willingness to clamp down on dissenting minority groups cannot be underestimated. In 2018, Amnesty International reported that Iranian security forces arbitrarily detained and tortured activists participating in Azeri Turkic gatherings. Outspoken Azeri Turks who voice concerns about the lack of opportunities to use or learn their own language are routinely stigmatised, mistreated, imprisoned, or subject to unfair trials. A similar fate may await many more Iranian Azeris if tensions do not dissipate soon.
While in Azerbaijan there has been a resurgence of irredentism inspired by the thought of ‘reunifying’ the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan with the northern Iranian provinces largely populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis and known to nationalists as ‘southern Azerbaijan,’ in Iran a counter movement also has gained momentum. From this angle, it is Azerbaijan that must be reunified with the ‘Iranian motherland’ after being forcibly incorporated into the Russian empire in the 19th century. These views have gained fresh prominence in Iran, especially on the level of public discourse. The influential reformist daily Shargh is instrumental in disseminating them.
Also, as for the past thirty years, a significant portion of the Iranian border was under the control of Armenian occupiers in Karabakh, it let Iran develop trade with the illegal occupation regime. Reports revealed that Iran profited from the occupation by supplying fuel, food and other materials to separatists and getting benefits in exchange, such as laundering US-sanctioned money through Armenian banks.
Now, things are tending to change following Azerbaijan regained full control of its Iranian border, including the important connections that were used to allow Iranian trucks to get through to Karabakh. The Second Karabakh War was infact a triumph for pan-Turkic solidarity.
However, Iranian trucks have continued to carry supplies to Armenian-populated parts of Karabakh via Yerevan, which is currently host to Russian peacekeeping forces. Baku had started charging customs fees for the trucks passing through the Gorus-Gafan road, the only motorway connecting Armenia to Iran. While Tehran officially remained silent on these additional costs, Azerbaijan arrested some drivers for entering Azerbaijan from Armenia illegally. Iran demanded the release of the drivers, and had lashed out at the supposedly amateur diplomacy by Azerbaijan. It shows how war games and insults haven’t abated.
As per an article by Abbad Qaidari in Atlantic Council: ‘It is unclear to what extent the new Ebrahim Raisi government and Supreme National Security Council can formulate a clear defense and security policy in the face of the security challenge with Azerbaijan. However, what is clear is the possibility of an aggressive defense and foreign policy given that tensions in the Middle East and the Caucasus are much higher.’
The writer is an author of seven books, and editor of Globe Upfront. [email protected]